Ben Child 

Michael Fassbender follows his Celtic heart to play Cuchulain

Ben Child: There's no excuse for confusing the German-born, Irish-raised actor with being British. His next project sounds like a Celtic cross between 300 and Braveheart
  
  

Irish film fans tend to get rightly annoyed when Michael Fassbender, who's surely among the world's hottest actors right now, is referred to as a Brit. Journalists tend to get confused by all those Bifas and Baftas, not to mention a couple of London Film Critics' Circle awards for "British actor of the year" (the body says this particular gong is handed to both British and Irish actors). But if the German-born, Irish-raised Fassbender's heritage was ever a matter of ignorance, the news that he's eyeing a role as Celtic hero Cuchulain should bring it smartly to public attention.

Cuchulain (or Cú Chulainn in some spellings) is often compared to the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf, though his story emerged as literature at least 100 years earlier than the famous Geat warrior myth and is about a time long before that, the Iron Age era when battling Irish clans fought for control. He is seen as emblematic by both Irish nationalists, who hail him as a Celtic hero who remained unbowed in the face of foreign intervention, and Northern Ireland loyalists, who see him as an Ulsterman who defended the north from invaders. Fassbender is developing the project with screenwriter Ronan Bennett through their London-based production company Finn McCool Films.

Son of the Celtic deity Lug (sometimes Lugh), Cuchulain is depicted as a fearsome warrior who in times of conflict would warp into a terrifying battle frenzy, or ríastrad, in which he would become unrecognisable and slay friends and enemies alike. He is also compared to the Greek hero Achilles, and the pair would have been relatively close contemporaries had they been real people. The most famous stories featuring Cuchulain, from the Irish medieval heroic Ulster Cycle legend, tell of how he defended his people, the north-dwelling Ulaid, against invaders from Connaught.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley (the name derives from suggestions that the southerners were hell-bent on nicking a famed and magical northern cow) is the longest and perhaps most famous tale. It narrates how, as a 17-year-old, Cuchulain prevented his homeland being overrun by invoking the ancient right of single combat, rather than see his uncle King Conchobar's relatively weak army defeated by the rival Connachta tribe's host, led by Queen Mebh. The hero takes on the southern invaders one by one, until he is finally forced to face his foster brother and best friend, Ferdiad. After four days of struggle between the pair, Cuchulain eventually triumphs, but is immediately stricken by remorse for having killed his former comrade. Even then he and his men are forced to face the Connachta host in one final battle royale.

The story of Cuchulain – and the Ulster Cycle itself – are populated by all sorts of deities and supernatural figures, so any film version would likely find itself slipping into the realms of sword and sorcery. Fassbender has emerged as a rare figure who is as comfortable (and popular) in genre fare such as X Men: First Class as he is in art-house material such as Steve McQueen's Venice smash Shame. It puts him in the perfect position to get a film like Cuchulain made. It also would not be surprising to see Hollywood lured into providing financial backing for a movie that sounds like a Celtic cross between 300 and Braveheart, with a little bit of Troy thrown in for good measure. Let's just hope Wolfgang Peterson doesn't get wind of it.

 

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